Soldiers' Stuff

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Items brought home from the war by soldiers and saved by their families can say a lot about war-time experiences. 

Courtesy of Robert Harman

Trench Art

Trench art works were decorative items often made by soldiers to pass the time while not engaged in battle, or after their tour of duty for therapeutic purposes. Made from whatever was available, trench art incorporates spent bullets and shell casings, coins, buttons, fabrics, and other recycled by-products of warfare. Some items, like vases, matchbox covers, and crucifixes were simple; others such as the cannon above, involved intricate knowledge of metalworking techniques. Regardless of the form, all trench art provides insight into a soldier's thoughts, actions, and feelings. 

This vase is made from an artillery shell and features an engraving of a bomb along with "Alsace 1917." The bottom of the vase contains information about the model of the shell used to make it.  

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Courtesy of Jason R. Dallas

Manual for Noncommissioned Officers and Privates of Field Artillery... 1917, Volume II.  (click to enlarge pages)

Courtesy of Richard Snyder

This manual, containing valuable training information for Infantry soldiers,  was owned by Arthur Snyder, of Perry, Iowa. Snyder served in the US Army and participated in trench warfare in France. After he came home, he suffered from what we now know as PTSD.  

Iron Cross 

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Images Courtesy of J. Craig Hickman.

This Iron Cross was brought home by Willard Branty Hickman in 1919, who retrieved it from the body of a dead German soldier. Hickman was born in Strange Creek, West Virginia and was a rubber worker for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company until he joined the military in 1917. He served with the 313th Field Artillery Unit, 80th Division in France. He returned home in June 1919 and went on to marry and have a family while working as an electrician. He died in 1969 and is buried in Princeton, West Virginia.  

The Iron Cross was a Prussian military decoration first awarded in 1813. At the start of World War I, the medal was reissued and awarded for bravery in battle, this time with 1914 printed on the reverse. The design of the cross remained consistent throughout its history, with a blackened iron center and silver or silver alloy trim, making it one of the most iconic and recognizable military decorations in history.

Collecting trophies from fallen enemy soldiers has been a macabre tradition throughout history. During World War I, items like Iron Crosses and German helmets were popularly collected mementos or even given as gifts to loved ones back home. A young Captain Harry Truman writing to his fiancée, Bess Wallace, after he saw a downed and wounded German aviator robbed of his boots by an American officer wrote: “I heard a Frenchman remark that Germany was fighting for territory, England for the sea, France for patriotism, and Americans for souvenirs.”

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